I LOVE this part of my public speaking classes.
This is right about the time – round about class three or four – when we start talking about ethics in public speaking (I should note here that, when we’re talking about ‘public speaking’ in this context, we’re actually talking about communication in general – the actual title of the course is called Effective Communication).
After a bit of conversation to get the class thinking – it takes a while to warm them up – I throw this bit of verbiage on the board:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.
There it is, folks: the actual text of the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights.
After I get it all copied down on the board (and, I’m proud to say, I’m almost to the point where I know it by heart!), I ask them what it is. MOST students know it’s “the freedom of speech” thingy; only a few of them can tell me that it’s an amendment to the U.S. Constitution and even fewer can tell me that it’s the FIRST one. I was delighted today, then, when a student in my second class was able to tell me that it was, indeed, the First Amendment.
Then, I blow their minds. “What does it ACTUALLY DO?” I ask. Then I stand there, usually for an uncomfortable amount of time, while they figure out that the answer they want to give is probably not the one I’m looking for because, well, it just sounds like such a no-brainer question, doesn’t it? So, why is she asking?
More often then not, I get a Taylor Mali-worthy, “um… it means I can say whatever I want?” or “it guarantees the freedom of speech?” to which I reply a hearty and enthusiastic “NOPE!”
We then go into a bit of a grammar lesson: “what’s the subject of this big, long sentence?” I ask them.
It takes a while, but they invariably come up with “Congress.”
“GREAT!” I say, “now, what’s the verb?”
Most often, they’ll come up with “make” – very few catch the helping verb, “shall,” but I don’t ride them about that.
“Okay, so, we’ve got this; Congress is the subject, and shall make is the verb. What’s the direct object of the verb ‘shall make‘?”
“LAW!” (they’re getting the hang of this by now.)
“Alright!” I say. “Now – knowing all of that, what does this amendment ACTUALLY DO?”
It’s usually the bravest kid in the class who will tell me that the amendment prohibits Congress from making laws about religion, speech and the press, and assembly. We then go through each part of the sentence and determine that here – unlike in, say, Iran or China – one cannot be arrested for practicing a particular faith and, despite how much the yahoos currently running the place may wish it were otherwise, it is prohibited that the government establish a national religion. We talk about how the government also cannot interfere in our right to speak, whether through our personal voices or through the press (which they define as ‘the media;’ we make the distinction between what is now “the press” and what it was when the Founding Fathers wrote this), and we talk about how it’s possible for more than three people to get together to demonstrate and not get arrested, and how we can sue the government.
“Does this amendment guarantee you anything?” I finally ask. It’s right about now that they realize that the only thing it guarantees us is that Congress can’t write new laws about this stuff. It doesn’t guarantee that there will be no consequences for the practice of the outlined activities; we can’t yell “fire!” in a crowded theatre, we can’t threaten to assassinate the president, we can’t assemble, peaceably or otherwise, without permission from local governments or landowners.
Once we’ve exhausted discussion about the First Amendment for our purposes, I move us on to ethics. In their book, ethics is defined as “the branch of philosophy which deals with issues of right and wrong in human affairs.” I put “right” and “wrong” in quotation marks and ask them why I did that. This question seems to give them less trouble than the First Amendment question; they recognize that things that one group thinks are ethical may not be seen as such by another group, and that something that is unethical in one situation (murder) may be entirely acceptable in another (justifiable homicide). We go on to talk about how one behaves ethically in communication, and we brainstorm a bunch of things that are present – or not – in ethical speech.
This part is a lot of fun, because the students come to recognize how incredibly situational ethics in communication can be. They all agree that “lying” and “verbal abuse/violence” are always unethical, and they’ll most often toss up “plagiarism” under the list of NO-NOs, but there’s some question about whether or not slurs or obscenities are unethical, or about how personal someone should get with communication.
When they start struggling over this stuff, I bring out the idea of the social contract. We talk about how, without really thinking about it, we modify our behavior to suit the situations in which we find ourselves: I am a slightly different person when I’m with my best friend, for example, than I am with my boss. I will swear in front of my children, but not in front of my in-laws. Students behave differently in class than they do at home than they do at a rock concert or a party. They understand this, and it helps them to really grasp the idea of something that may be ethical speech in one situation may not be in another.
Then it starts to get really good. I ask them about the idea of ‘sticks and stones.’ We talk about what happens when someone says something that comes back to bite them in the ass… HARD.
In short, I play the Imus card.
I can’t stand shock jocks. I don’t think they’re funny, and I find the take-it-or-leave-it closed-mindedness that most of them embody to be draining. Still, I’m so grateful to the Universe for giving us ethics and English teachers Don Imus. Seriously; we couldn’t have imagined a better cautionary tale, or dreamed up better lesson plan fodder.
Most of the students are familiar with Imus’s spectacular fall from grace a few months ago. For those who don’t know, I explain that he made a rather indelicate comment about the Rutgers women’s basketball team and, as a result, got himself far more negative attention than he ever expected and, eventually, lost his job over the incident.
“Were Imus’s First Amendment rights violated?” I ask.
Right away, a bunch of kids are guaranteed to say “YES!” He shouldn’t have lost his job, they say, and it was wrong for people to come down on him so hard because of what was obviously a throw-away comment that was never intended to be mean or hurtful. Okay, I grant them that: what would happen, though, if I were to call one of YOU a racially insensitive name? Do you think there’s the possibility that I might lose MY job over that kind of behavior? They agree that, yes, I likely would. Would that violate my freedom of speech as laid out in the Bill of Rights? They choke on this a bit; they agree that I have a right to my opinion, and that if I want to call them a sticks-and-stones name, I can certainly do that. They start realizing, though, that just because I can’t necessarily be arrested for doing so, I can suffer other, social consequences for such an action. Imus lost his job because he broke both a social and an employment contract; there were certain standards of behavior – even for shock jocks – that were expected to be followed. He blew those standards off, and he suffered the logical consequences of what he did.
Both of my classes got sent home today with the Time Magazine article about Imus and the direction to respond not only to what happened to the man, but also why they should care. I’m going to be very interested to see if they can get around the idea that the Constitution may protect us from certain unreasonable laws, but that no such social shields exist. On Thursday, we’ll talk about why it’s important that we allow the nut-jobs and the KKK to speak their piece, and I’ll introduce the idea, stated so eloquently by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, that “none are free until all are free.”